Senate shouldn’t gamble national security on Obama promises

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Former Secretary of State Colin Powell threw his weight behind the START II nuclear-arms treaty on Wednesday, and President Obama is making a full-court press to rally senators with promises of future nuclear modernization. Sweet nothings aside, the treaty is problematic, and the president’s word isn’t strong enough to fix it.

The Obama administration has pledged a 10-year, $80 billion plan to upgrade the U.S. nuclear stockpile and is sweetening the deal with an additional $8 billion if the Senate acts quickly on START. Some senators, notably John Kyl, Arizona Republican, aren’t confident such a promise will be fulfilled. As Mr. Obama’s reversal on allowing offshore oil drilling on the East Coast illustrates, his word isn’t necessarily his bond. A practical solution would be to amend the treaty language to explicitly authorize development, testing and deployment of new, modern, more secure nuclear weapons. The White House and Senate Democrats should have no problem with this, assuming Mr. Obama is being above-board.

Future restrictions on U.S. missile defense are an even greater concern. The treaty’s preamble language argues America should reduce its defensive systems, a passage the White House dismisses as not operative. Moscow, however, reads this as restricting the U.S. missile-defense effort. Russian officials warned if the United States continues to develop missile-defense capabilities, the treaty would be null. The ill-defined Bilateral Consultative Commission established by the agreement will become the primary vehicle for Russia to impose its version of the treaty language. Combine this with the Obama administration’s general lack of enthusiasm for missile defense and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Senate delay on the treaty would be evidence of “a very dumb nature,” and if the United States continues with its missile-defense programs, “Russia will be simply obligated to ensure its security with different means, including the deployment of … new nuclear missiles.” The threat isn’t compelling. Russia already pursues extensive strategic modernization which START II wouldn’t inhibit. Taken in that light, the minor warhead drawdown Moscow has agreed to amounts to little if the remaining weapons become more lethal. Mr. Putin’s bluster is reminiscent of his saber-rattling about a new arms race when President George W. Bush announced in 2001 that America was pulling out of the ABM Treaty. Mr. Putin’s warnings then were as baseless as his current statements are. A Russian nuclear buildup has no strategic logic and only threatens Mr. Obama’s utopian vision of a world without nuclear arms.

A second amendment to the treaty language could clarify that START II has no bearing on or governing authority over U.S. missile-defense programs in any form. Since the White House has downplayed the linkage between the treaty and missile defense, it should welcome this clarifying language. Without this amendment and the modernization language, the Senate would be passing a flawed agreement that significantly weakens America’s strategic posture. Senators should get Mr. Obama’s promises in writing or scrap this dangerous treaty.

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